Better Luck Next Year: Colorado Avalanche edition

As NHL teams are eliminated from Stanley Cup contention, theScore NHL freelance writer Katie Brown looks back at the highs and lows of their seasons, along with the biggest questions ahead of 2018-19. The 23rd edition focuses on the Colorado Avalanche.

The Good

Nathan MacKinnon. The former No. 1 pick was Colorado’s best player and leading scorer during the regular season. MacKinnon scored a career-high 39 goals and 97 points before being named a Hart Trophy finalist. If that wasn't enough, he led his team to the playoffs and a 47-point improvement over last season.

An improbable season. Just making the playoffs was an accomplishment many thought the Avalanche wouldn’t be able to pull off - but they did, in their last game of the regular season. That the team was able to survive a litany of injuries and make the playoffs just one year after having one of the worst seasons in NHL history was truly remarkable.

Trading Matt Duchene. When the Avalanche traded Matt Duchene to the Ottawa Senators, they didn’t look like a playoff-bound team. Afterward? They looked like a completely different club. There’s no way to know if this was solely due to unloading Duchene, who was linked to trade rumors for what seemed like forever, but some of the pieces acquired in the deal - goalie Andrew Hammond and defenseman Samuel Girard - ended up becoming important ones down the line.

The Bad

Losing the starting goaltender, then the backup. Semyon Varlamov's season ended right before the playoffs when he went down with a lower-body injury, a huge blow to a team that had snuck into the playoffs. Varlamov played in 51 regular-season games, owning a .920 save percentage and 2.68 goals against average. Backup Jonathan Bernier started the first four playoff games, allowed 14 goals, and then left Game 4 with a lower-body injury. That meant Hammond, who’d played in one regular-season contest all year was next up. He was lights out in Game 5 of the Avalanche’s series against the Nashville Predators but gave up five goals on 37 shots in Game 6, where they were eliminated.

One-dimensional offense. The top line of MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog, and Mikko Rantanen scored 243 of the team's collective 658 points during the campaign. When they faltered in the postseason, so did the Avalanche, who lost every game where the top line recorded fewer than three points.

Inexperience vs. experience. The Predators were a more experienced team than the Avalanche, and not just in playoff games played, of which Colorado had the least of any playoff team at the start of the postseason. Nashville’s defensive depth was intimidating, their forward group was deeper, and their goaltending was better in the first-round series. Colorado was able to keep up with Nashville longer than many thought, but in the end, experience won out.

The Questions

What’s on Sakic’s summer to-do list? One of general manager Joe Sakic’s priorities this summer should be finding at least one defenseman. There were points during the season where the Avalanche were playing with more than one AHL blue-liner. Patrik Nemeth and Anton Lindholm will probably not be returning, so Sakic may have two spots to fill. If it's decided not to bring Bernier back, a decision will also need to be made for a backup goaltender.

Who should be re-signed? Without a doubt, Rantanen should be signed to a long-term extension. He has one year remaining on his entry-level deal and is arguably one of the franchise’s most important pieces going forward. Mark Barberio, Blake Comeau, Gabriel Bourque, Mark Alt, Hammond, and Bernier are all unrestricted free agents this summer, and Sakic will have to consider who he wants to keep around. It’s doubtful that all of them will be brought back. Of RFAs in need of new contracts, the only one who will probably not be given a qualifying offer is Nail Yakupov.

Should they make a run at Tavares? Pending UFA John Tavares could stay with the New York Islanders. There’s also a chance he may not, and there are a dozen or more teams who would love to win the Tavares sweepstakes. With $25.3 million to play with, minus whatever Rantanen’s contract runs (if Colorado goes that route) and any other free agents, the Avalanche would have a lot to offer Tavares. And they need to address scoring, so why not? If Tavares doesn’t pan out, James van Riemsdyk is another intriguing option.

(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)

Better Luck Next Year: Colorado Avalanche edition
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